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Cats Again

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Once, as he'd sat at his desk with shaking hands and struggled through the fog in his mind, Death had sworn that he'd never take in another cat again.

Lovejoy had been just a kitten then, and already scarred with the mad king's knives. The last of his littermates had been killed the night before, a little she-cat that Leck had calmly skinned alive until Death had shattered and screamed and scrambled to destroy whatever truths it would take to get the pain to stop.

The library was not a safe place for cats. Not while Leck was king. Not while Death's Grace kept him from forgetting the past as completely as Leck wanted. Death wouldn't maim a book to stop his own suffering, but he'd do it for his cats, and the king knew it. He didn't think he could stand to see another one die just because he didn't know how to keep his mouth shut.

And so it's been just him and Lovejoy, the two of them together, one cat and one old man and shelves full of books becoming ever more empty.

Now it's fifteen years later, and Lovejoy is as old and crotchety as Death himself, and there is a box of kittens on his desk.

"Giddon found them in the stables," the queen was saying. "Poor things, their mother died. They were going to drown them, Death, can you believe that?"

The librarian drags his eyes away from the blind, mewling animals in the box to study his indignant monarch. Bitterblue has a sheaf of papers tucked under one arm and her other hand extended for Lovejoy to sniff. He doesn't think she expects the cat to actually greet her—the tom had taken one look at box in her hands, hissed, and dove under the table—but it is a courtesy that the queen shows every time she comes to the library.

Death's queen, who's rebuilding this broken kingdom from the bottom up, who is gentle and strong and sharp as steel, who still takes time out of her day to greet old cats and to be furious about the mistreatment of orphaned animals.

"Can you take care of them, Death?" she asks, and her grip on the paperwork in her hands tightens. His beautiful queen. "I know you're busy, but I couldn't think of anyone else."

"Lady Queen," Death says, "it would be my pleasure."

Later, after Queen Bitterblue has sent servants scurrying for the supplies he needs, after she's been whisked off to an yet another meeting, after Tilda and Bren and Teddy come and coo over the babies and he's shown them the proper way to feed them, Death sits back in his chair and watches his new charges. He's not sure where the hot water bottle came from, nor the soft blanket they're sleeping on, but they seem comfortable enough.

Somewhere in the distance, he hears his young assistants murmuring, shuffling papers, exclaiming over this book or that one. There is ink on his hands from so many hours spent painstakingly transferring the words in his head onto paper, replacing all the truths that Monsea has lost.

He feels pressure against his leg, and he reaches down one knobby hand to scratch Lovejoy's ears. "Well, old fellow," he says. "Cats in the library again. How about that."

And Lovejoy purrs, and the kittens slumber, and there's something sitting in Death's gut that might, maybe, feel like peace.